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Reading The Game: Red Dead Redemption 2

In <em>Red Dead Redemption</em> <em>2</em>, you don't exactly level up.
Courtesy of Rockstar Games
In Red Dead Redemption 2, you don't exactly level up.

For years now, some of the best, wildest, most moving or revealing stories we've been telling ourselves have come not from books, movies or TV, but from video games. So we're running an occasional series, Reading The Game, in which we take a look at some of these games from a literary perspective.

I could tell you a hundred stories about my life as Arthur Morgan, gravel-voiced anti-hero and the poet's heart of Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption 2. Big stories and small stories, loud ones and quiet ones. Everyone who plays the game can, because RDR2 is a lot of things (a clunky shooter, a gorgeous art project, a love story between a man and his horse), but it is mainly an engine designed for the creation of stories — places where the competing strands of algorithmic AI and narrative benchmarking collide to make unique moments that are ridiculous, bloody, and sublime, often all at the same time.

This newest Red Dead, a direct prequel to 2010's original Red Dead Redemption, is big (as you've probably heard). It is undeniably gorgeous (as you've probably heard), representing uncountable hours of effort by hundreds of men and women responsible for, among other things, designing the way leaves move in gentle breezes and making Arthur's horse poop. It is a masterpiece in several different ways — the look of it, the feel of it, god, the sound of it, which is worthy of an entire essay all its own.

So many of its pieces are. I could write ten thousand words on the rising convergence of the outlaw/lawman dichotomy as explored via Red Dead's relationship between politics and the gun or ten pages on nothing but my own personal relationship with Arthur's Hat.

It is, in the universe of video games, our 'Godfather,' our 'Star Wars' or 'Wild Bunch' — the work that transcends its genre and, in this case, its medium.

But RDR2 is too big, too sprawling, too full for taking on in a piece-by-piece look at the story. Enough, maybe, to say that it tells, over the course of 60-plus hours, an epic, bloody tale of betrayal and obsolescence. It is, in the universe of video games, our Godfather, our Star Wars or Wild Bunch — the work that transcends its genre and, in this case, its medium. It is a film brought to life, a novel given legs, and to speak about any piece of it is to necessarily reduce it to a bunch of cogs and sprockets — how this piece fits with that one. And that's a disservice, I think. It's why deconstructionists are often very little fun at parties.

So instead, I'm going to focus on one brave, subverting, possibly unique choice, made early in the Rockstar writer's room, that, narratively speaking, makes this Red Dead unlike any other game I've ever played.

There are BIG spoilers coming. So seriously, stop reading now if that sort of thing Clints your Eastwood.

You ready?


It should surprise absolutely no one that Arthur Morgan dies. He has to — his absence from the world telegraphed by every inch of the original Red Dead.

But it is the manner of his death that's important. Arthur gets no glorious, guns-blazing send-off here. No hero's death. Instead, he dies alone, having achieved, in the end, so very little. He goes out tragic and unfulfilled. A mere placeholder in a larger story that continues without him.

And that's brave enough, as far as narrative decisions go. Alone, without context, that would've been a surprising end for any main character in Video Game Land. But what really made it work was a complete and deliberate subversion of what I think of as the First Law of Video Games: The Power Curve.

The Power Curve is what makes video games work. It is the core narrative and gameplay mechanic in virtually every game since Pac-Man. At its most basic, it works like this: You, the player, are dropped into a world as a (nearly) helpless pixel-blob, alone and vulnerable. You hit some slimes with a stick. You try not to die. And eventually, you get bigger. Maybe you make friends. Maybe you find a better stick. But whatever it is, you learn that through hard work and dedicated grinding you can become ... more. By the end-game, you're basically a god walking among men, capable of defeating the Final Boss and bringing peace to Hyrule (or whatever).

That's the power curve: the only absolutely true and inviolable law of the video game world.

Except in RDR2.

Because here, Arthur Morgan and his pals in the Dutch van der Linde gang begin the game just past the apex of their power curve. They are a band of outlaws — bank robbers and loan sharks, working girls and stick-up artists. But they're noble (or believe they are) because they commit their crimes in service of Dutch's vision of Utopian personal freedom. They don't want to live with The Man's boot on their collective neck. They just wanna make a few bucks, find a place where no one will bother them, and live out their days free of the shackles of their rapidly modernizing society.

When we meet Arthur et al., they're on the run from a job gone bad in the town of Blackwater. Previous to it, we're led to believe that they were all both skilled and lucky — a gang at the height of their strength and power. But Blackwater is where it all turned sour on them. Nothing will ever go as well as things went in the imagined past, before we snapped into Arthur's skin.

And for the first half of the game, this is all done gently — jobs going wrong, splinters of division in the gang, an increasing sense that Dutch (a bookish psychopath, but also Arthur's friend, father-figure, mentor and image of criminal decency) is losing his grip on both morality and sanity. The gang is constantly on the run, being hounded and hunted by the law, Pinkertons, the forces of industrialization. And with every forced move or desperate fight, the gang (and, therefore, Arthur) becomes weaker.

But then, around mid-game, there comes a moment when this leeching of power becomes personal. For me, it happened on a sunny afternoon in Saint Denis when, suddenly, fresh from a job killing rats in a local dive bar for a couple bucks pay, Arthur starts coughing.

And simply can't stop.

He is diagnosed with tuberculosis. Incurable. A death sentence that will be enacted in the cruelest way — by making Arthur progressively weaker and weaker the longer he manages to hold on. A reversal of the power curve.

And that is just genius.

Why? Because it puts a ticking clock on you. Because even though you know Arthur will somehow muster the strength to see the game through to the end of its narrative course, he will now approach every story mission in worse health, looked on as sickly and incapable by those around him. Where, once, you could stand in a hail of lead and trust in the curative powers of a can of magical baked beans to put you right when the last body hit the floor, now you — as Arthur — can feel the inexorable approach of mortality.

In [its] bleak nihilism, 'Red Dead' becomes a work of rare literary genius — a story that paints you as guilty just for playing it.

Narratively, it moves the plot into desperation speed. Arthur knows he has limited time left on this earth, and that there are some things he needs to do before he leaves it. In subtext, it serves as an excellent physical manifestation of the heartsickness Arthur feels over some of the bad choices he has made in his life, and his hacking cough gives voice to the rot spreading through the van der Linde gang as the walls (and the law) close in.

To take this character who has lived his entire life with a gun in one hand and offer him a personal reaper that comes in the most benign and banal of disguises — as a failing of the body not brought on by Gatling gun or some drunk's knife — stands as a stark indictment of literally everything the ostensible hero stands for. To live by the gun and die by it has a kind of internal poetry that we instinctively accept. But to live by the gun and die on the side of a mountain, coughing your lungs out as everything goes dark? That's harsh judgement in a way that I've rarely seen before. It's brilliant. It's perfect.

Choose to dally in Arthur Morgan's world and death will haunt you from beginning to end. You will enter the world bloody and go out the same way. There will be moments of kindness, of joy, of great and sweeping beauty, sure. But you will die of it, most surely. And all that you were and all that you've seen will be forgotten. In this bleak nihilism, Red Dead becomes a work of rare literary genius — a story that paints you as guilty just for playing it. Because once you choose the outlaw's life, there's no way to ever un-make that decision.

And you were already on your way out the moment you began.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

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Jason Sheehan